Friday, June 1, 2012

Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

Brendan Behan (1923-1964) was an Irish poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright who was also a member of the Irish Republican Army. He was born in Dublin to a working class family. His father was a house painter who had been active in the Irish War of Independence, and was himself an educated man and a fan of literature and history. His mother was even more political, and had been a personal friend of Michael Collins. Brendan Behan had a brother, Brian, who was also a well known playwright and radical political activist, and two of his uncles were political and known songwriters. Behan left school at the age of 13, and already was reported to be heavily using alcohol, a demon that would curse him his entire life. At the age of 14, Behan joined the Fianna Eireann, the IRA youth movement, and began publishing some of his works in the IRA magazine.

Behan joined the IRA when he was 16 years old, and was sent to England to blow up the docks in Liverpool. He was arrested in possession of explosives, and imprisoned in a reform school (Borstal school), which he later wrote about in his autobiography "Borstal Boy." In 1942, Behan was again tried, this time for the attempted murder of two detectives in Dublin. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison, incarcerated at the Mountjoy prison. He wrote about his prison life in "Confessions of an Irish Rebel."

He was released in 1946 under an amnesty. He was imprisoned again in 1947 for trying to break out a fellow prisoner from jail. He later left the IRA, although he remained good friends with many of the members throughout his life. Brendan Behan learned the Irish language while in prison, and after that wrote in both English and Irish.

In Easter Week, 1916, there was a revolutionary uprising in Ireland in an effort to overthrow the English.  Most of the Irish who stood against the English were immediately slaughtered, but Ireland soon gained its freedom.  One of Brendan Behan's famous poems was titled "Who Fears To Speak Of Easter Week," calling on Irish people to continue their struggle for complete independence from England.   

Behan left Ireland for a time in the 1950s, and went to live in Paris where he reportedly earned a living writing pornography. When he returned to Ireland, he had developed a discipline to make sure that he continued his writing, instead of just wasting his life sitting in pubs drinking. He would get up early in the morning, and write steadily until noon when the pubs opened.  Then he went to drink.

In 1954 his play "The Quare Fellow" was produced.  It is about his experience in prison, and about an inmate who is going to be hung. The play brought attention to Behan and to the issue of capital punishment. Soon the play was being shown in a West End theatre in London. Behan was becoming a minor celebrity, and was invited on a popular television show, where he appeared quite drunk. Jackie Gleason was also a guest on the show, took a liking to Behan, and the two become good friends.

At the end of The Quare Fellow, the song "The Auld Triangle" is sung. The Auld Triangle (sometimes called The Banks of the Royal Canal) was written by Brendan's brother, Dominic Behan. This has since become a popular song, performed by many Irish artists, considered by many to be a modern Irish anthem. The triangle in the song is a reference to a triangle which hung in the prison where Brendan Behan served time. The song takes place on the day one of the prisoners is to be executed. Among the artists who have performed or recorded The Auld Triangle are The Dubliners, The Pogues, The Dropkick Murphys, U2, Bob Dylan and the Band, Eric Burdon, and Glen Hansard.

Soon the play was also showing on Broadway, and Behan gained an international following. He spent much of the rest of his very short life drunk, and turning out well-respected work, widely hailed as one of the most important Irish writers of his generation. Unfortunately his heavy use of alcohol caused serious health problems including diabetic comas and seizures. Finally, in March of 1964, at the young age of 41, Behan collapsed in a bar, and was taken to a nearby hospital where he died.  He had an Irish Republican Army funeral. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Behan was a major influence in the writings of Shane MacGowan. He is the subject of a song by the Pogues titled "Streams of Whiskey," and is mentioned in "Thousands Are Sailing." The Clancy Brothers recorded their own version of "Lament for Brendan Behan." The Lament for Brendan Behan by Fred Geis has also become a standard for many Irish singers.

1 comment:

  1. Can anybody give me the words of a rhyme in Irish attributed to Brendan Behan re Oscar Wild.

    It begins:

    Dá aoibhinn bealach an Pheaca


    Mo ghreidhn thú a Oscair

    Bhí sé agat ...(san dá slí ?)

    Basically he was alleging that Oscar had the best of both worlds, sinning away but converting to relgion at the very end.

    Cathal C